Former New York Times reporter Amy Waldman has published a novel called Submission that is about a fictional memorial to 9/11 created by a young Muslim-American architect named Mohammed Khan. Twice now I have heard Waldman interviewed on public radio, and, leaving aside the possible fearful resonances in her title (Islam means submission to God), I was struck by the willingness on the part of Waldman and her interviewers to deal in identity politics. That is, when it’s not Jewish identity politics.
I heard that Mohammed “Mo” Khan is a secularized Muslim, but angry. I heard that Sean Gallagher– i.e., a Roman Catholic — rips the hijab off a Muslim woman. The Washington Post review says there’s a WASP too:
The ensuing drama changes the lives of every member of the novel’s ensemble cast. The rich investor’s WASP-ish widow, the dead janitor’s illegal immigrant wife, the demagogic politician, the desperate tabloid hack, the beleaguered chairman of the competition jury, the dead FDNY hero’s low-life brother, the radio shock jock, the Muslim community organizer, the white trash incendiary blogger and, of course, the besieged winning architect are all represented here.
I wonder where the Jewish characters are. Now maybe Waldman has them. But no one’s talking about them.
At one level, I understand this reluctance. During the Ocean Hill-Brownsville struggle of 40 years ago, or the Crown Heights upheaval of 20 years back, the Jews were humble — teachers and Hasidim– and could be openly identified as political actors. But the Jews of the 9/11 context are far more empowered actors. They include the Israel lobby whose support for the occupation of Palestine played a part in Al Qaeda’s decision to attack the U.S., as even the 9/11 commission has said. They include the actual designer of the 9/11 memorial– Michael Arad– an Israeli diplomat’s son. They include leading New York politicians who are making decisions and writers who are chronicling the matter. (I’m guessing novelist Waldman is herself Jewish).
And I understand the reluctance because, as a small group with so much power, we feel vulnerable. When the repulsive Texas Gov. Rick Perry threatened physical violence against Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke the other day, how many Jews reflected that Bernanke is Jewish? All of us, I bet.
But our vulnerability doesn’t resolve the issue of journalists’ blindness to the Jewish presence. We’re American Establishment actors– as neoconservatives, as liberal Zionists, as Israel lobbyists, yes and as anti-Zionists. As often as not, we’re the storytellers. About half the narrators I listen to in the Media-Industrial complex are Jewish, and I haven’t even gotten to the execs who founded Facebook and Google, changing our lives.
And yet we’re inhibited about discussing this presence. It would be unimaginable to hear a Jewish TV personality going on about how Jewish values had propelled, say, Mike Bloomberg in the way that Chris Matthews went on and on the other day– very movingly– about the Irish-Catholicness of his hero, the late Hugh Carey.
We can’t be that open. We still can’t trust America enough to talk about the Jewish rise.
I find it irritating. I am going to thumb through Amy Waldman’s book the next time I’m in a bookstore and see if there are major Jewish characters. If there are, I’ll read the book. If there aren’t, I won’t. Because if there aren’t, it would be failing at the writer’s task of representing reality.
P.S. Two other examples of this issue of transparent political identity:
1. Yesterday we posted a video of Noam Chomsky. A brilliant man, and great leader, yes. And he said some smart things. But I found it disturbing to listen to him go on about evangelical Christians in America with all but complete lack of differentiation. A third of Americans expect the second coming in their lifetime, he said. The Christian Zionists are among the most antisemitic people in the world; they want all the Jews to be exterminated. Does he know any of these people? Would he describe American Jewish attitudes so sweepingly and negatively? No.
2. A couple weeks ago on National Public Radio, Robert Siegel interviewed writer Suketu Mehta about his article in The New Yorker magazine about an African woman in New York City who is seeking asylum. In the interview, Siegel made a confession about his own origins and beliefs. I found it very refreshing: for me, it was a window on the new Jewish experience, empowered and increasingly conservative. It was an honest, reflective moment.
SIEGEL: I have to confess that now being myself two generations from the boat that sailed into the country, I identify at least as much with the hearing officer, or the immigration officer, as I do with the applicant for asylum.
So he’s sitting there, asking her a question: Were you raped? Yes. Did you go to the hospital? Is there some document? Yeah, there is, but it’s not here. There are papers somewhere back in my home country. How can he conceivably verify the story that he’s being told?
Mr. MEHTA: Well, that’s a very good question. And my sympathies, too, are with the asylum officer. He’s got the awesome responsibility of deciding whether or not to let in a person who, if he makes the wrong move, could be sent back to be raped all over again. And I think that the immigration system needs more resources….